Role Model

A project by Sheryl Oring

Typist Ana Luisa Hartmann Hilgert talks about what people told her in answer to the question: What can Brazil teach the world? 

What Brazil Can Teach the World…

I’m so tired. My feet ache from walking for miles. I set out in the direction of São Paulo’s Mercadao Municipal this morning, choosing the crooked side streets over the wide boulevards and hoping for the best. Just past a string of music stores with hot pick and purple guitars out front, I thought I might be lost. But I kept walking, telling myself to trust my instincts and move in the direction I’d plotted on the map before leaving the hotel: left, then right, then left again and right again, and so on until the small back streets gave way to a busy intersection.

I thought about going into the church with the red LED sign posting the times for Mass; it seemed a safe enough place to sit down and consult a map. But just beyond it the road widened and I saw the street that was supposed to lead to the market. I kept walking.

According to the map, the market would be at the fifth cross street. I counted as I walked, and at the fifth street there was no sign of a market. I kept going.  A few streets later there it was, a big arena filled with dozens of varieties of tropical fruits and vegetables. It was nice, but not as striking as the market housed in my memory: Guadalajara, circa 1986. Its dizzying array of delicacies lives on in my mind as a benchmark of sorts for world markets. I cannot even do the math to count the years from then to now. I wonder if it’s still there.

I walk on and soon decide to give in to São Paolo’s own temptations, in this case, the churrascaria. The churraso is much like Berlin’s döner kebap, a large vertical slab of roasted meat that revolves around as thin slices are carved off and collected for a sandwich. That’ll be 2 Real (about a dollar) for the sandwich and two small cups of juice. I am sold. 

The other night a few of us shared a cab; the driver gave us each a piece of cinnamon-flavored hard candy and told us all we should visit the Museu de Arte de São Paulo, or MASP. He said this in broken English, not knowing we were all artists – he was clearly proud that his city was home to such a museum. I headed in that direction.

I moved quickly through the Albrecht Dürer exhibition, then moved on to the star attraction: Vermeer’s “Woman in Blue Reading a Letter” was on display as part of a rare tour to Shanghai, São Paulo and Los Angeles. It was quite striking to see how one work of art could touch a world audience more than three centuries after it was made. I think about paintings as spectacle and move on.

I’d read a little about Anna Maria Maiolino, an Italian-born Brazilian artist whose work was also on display, but I knew nothing about Paolo Nazareth, who shared the 2012 MASP Award for the Visual Arts with Maiolino.

In 2011, Nazareth traveled by foot and by bus from Brazil to the United States, wearing thin rubber flip flops and not washing his feet the whole way so he could collect South American soil on his feet and bring it to the United States, where he ritually washed his feet in New York’s Hudson River. The show at MASP documented his trip with stark photographs showing his various stops along the way.

A press release about a related show, “Noticias de America,” or “News from the Americas,” at the Mendes Wood gallery in São Paulo, says: “Noticias de America is the result of a year’s elaboration of a living body of work concerned with the web of human affairs and the social and personal ties that exist from household to household, village to village, and city to city on both sides of the Rio Grande. Through documented performances, social sculptures, drawings and biographical portraits in video and film, Nazareth reveals an unseen vision of the Americas – uncovering a plurality of overlapping Americas and a profusion of ways of being. In a practice without preconceived strategies or formulas, Nazareth relies on the immediacy of life itself to create an impression of the overall shape of experience and being.”

My feet hurt but after reading about Nazareth’s several thousand mile journey, how could I possibly complain? I am back at the hotel now, in a comfortable room, and I think to myself: Maybe what Brazil can teach the world is determination.



Beyond Kasha?

When I started thinking about doing the “Role Model” project, I did a little qualitative research on the idea. In other words, I talked to people. 

One of them is an art historian who is originally from St. Petersburg, but who I know from my life in San Diego. She thought people in St. Petersburg would have LOTS to say in answer to the question: “What can Russia teach the world?”

"They will go on and on," she said. "They’ll want to tell you so many things."

With her encouragement, I finalized plans for the show. 

Then two nights ago, as the premiere approached, I met someone else, an anthropologist and friend of the arts here in St. Petersburg. She shook her head and looked serious. 

"What is Russia?" she wanted to know. "There are so many Russias, that if you asked me that question, I would have no idea how to answer." 

She had a point. Russia is a big country. I know what she means - or at least I think I do.

But you can extend these sweeping ideas down to the local, I said. It can be your Russia, but it can also be someone else’s, I said over drinks at the Dacha bar in the middle of St. Petersburg. 

She still didn’t seem convinced. But a young teacher thought otherwise. He, too, thought people in St. Petersburg would have a lot to say in answer to the question. “A lot!” he said. “They’ll really have a lot to say. Don’t worry.”

Tonight I met the anthropologist once more, this time over dinner. Sumptuous plates of dumplings, salad and kasha were brought to the table. 

She looked over at the kasha and said, “that’s it! That’s what Russia can teach the world.”

We laughed, and I went back to wondering what the answers will be like.

The show debuts tomorrow. Stay tuned…

It was a very long trip: Greensboro, Detroit, unplanned rerouting to Munich and 27 hours after leaving home, the Moscow Gate in St. Petersburg.

It was a very long trip: Greensboro, Detroit, unplanned rerouting to Munich and 27 hours after leaving home, the Moscow Gate in St. Petersburg.

A doctor barbie from the “I can do” collection: am I missing something? I don’t think they sell these in the U. S.

A doctor barbie from the “I can do” collection: am I missing something? I don’t think they sell these in the U. S.

Someone told me recently that they don’t like Schiphol. But how can you resist a place filled with wooden tulips and solar butterflies?

Someone told me recently that they don’t like Schiphol. But how can you resist a place filled with wooden tulips and solar butterflies?

Backwards and Forwards

Before even leaving Greensboro, I am reminded about the power of travel, of how moving even just one step outside of our comfort zones can make us see the world just slightly differently. And how this change in perception, even an infinitesimal one, can provide a spark of an idea, or a flood of imaginings.

At GSO, the lady checking me in wasn’t convinced that my Russian visa was valid. The visa noted that my entry was valid from 10.09.12 through 09.10.12. “Do they do this backwards over there?” she wanted to know. By this she meant the denotation of dates. She thought my visa started on October 9, 2012, and if that were the case, I wouldn’t be allowed to travel. “Yes,” I said, “they put the day of the month first.” 

She called a colleague over, he told her to look it up in some sort of manual. Luckily, she noticed the issue date: 10.08.12. “It couldn’t have been issued in October,” she said. And with that, I was on my way.

Much of the rest of the world does in fact record dates this way. So if we take a global perspective, the U.S. is the one doing things backwards.

But enough about that. Now I am in the Detroit airport, and even here, on a layover that’s stretched from four to five hours because a delayed flight, I am reminded in other ways about the power of travel. When we move out of our routines we enter into a liminal space of possibilities, a space where anything can happen. We open up the doors that call to serendipity and invite her to sit with us for a time, to surprise us, to thrill us, to challenge us, to help us see things with fresh eyes.

The first surprise was a very welcome one: a colleague, an art historian who was finishing her degree at the University of California at San Diego while I was doing my MFA there, sends a Facebook message that she’ll be in St. Petersburg the last two days of my trip. She is from St. Petersburg, and nearly half a year ago we sat together in the San Diego sunshine and talked about the city and my upcoming project. I’m very much looking forward to seeing her in her hometown.

And then there was a brief email from the artist Haim Steinbach, one of my professors at UCSD. When I think about role models, Haim is one person who immediately comes to mind. There’s a quote from the writer Margaret Atwood that has stayed with me through the years, a quote about what it takes to be successful as a writer (though I always extrapolated and imagined it applied to artists of all stripes). What it takes, she said, is “dedication, devotion and the art of being present.”

For me, Haim embodied these ideas. Studio visits with Haim were long and meandering conversations that felt akin to travel. You started in one place and by the time he left your studio, you were most likely somewhere else altogether. His dedication and devotion – and also his generosity – all come together to make him a real role model for me as I open studio doors belonging to the next generation of graduate students.

While I am thinking about being a role model for students, I am also concerned with being a role model for my own daughter. At age 4, it’s hard to know whether she understands why her mom is packing for another trip. I put small goodie bags on the fridge, one for each day that I’m gone, and these tokens of my affection seem to take away some of the pain of absence.

This morning, as we were  preparing to leave for school, she insisted that we cut open a plum so she could take out the “little tiny baby seed.” She placed it in my hand and told me that if I missed her, I could look at the seed and remember her. And then we cut another plum and took out the seed for her.